Modern life makes skeptics out of us all. No doubt you were skeptical about a hundred things before breakfast, and a hundred more since; if you put on the news, you can double that count. So many official stories feel inadequate, or messily manipulated for popular consumption, or just downright implausible. When you hear them, you cross your arms, angle your head, and give a suspicious look. This is the stance you’ve been forced to adopt as you’re saturated with sales messages of different sorts. If we all followed along everywhere we were pushed, we’d all be victims of overconsumption. Incredulity is the only way to make it through the day.
Yet this crisis is different. It has demanded compliance with strict recommendations passed down by medical experts who we don’t know, and who, on a sunnier day, we’d probably tune out. Given the way that infectious diseases spread, general adherence to these rules is mandatory: if fifty per cent of the country opts out of what the other fifty per cent is doing, it doesn’t matter how well the cooperative half sticks to the rules. The whole thing will fall apart — and people will die — unless we all listen.
This is exactly the sort of thing that we’ve gotten very bad at. Before we follow the suggestion of an expert, we want to know who he worked for, and voted for, and which side he’s on in the great game that has absorbed our national attention since the turn of the millennium. Should that expert be aligned, in any way, with a political figure we distrust, we simply tune him out. This has made it virtually impossible for our society to take action against a common inhuman adversary, and it goes a long way toward explaining why America leads the world in cases, and hospitalizations, and fatalities. The coronavirus found us fighting, quite desperately, with each other, and it’s exploited that division.
In order to stop the global pandemic, humanity must achieve herd immunity. There’s an ugly means to this end: everybody on the planet can get infected. Our best, and likely only, means of avoiding this awful outcome is a vaccine. Yet a substantial percentage of Americans — way bigger than you think — will not touch the vaccine if Bill Gates’s name is on it, or anywhere near it. They’ve convinced themselves that Gates is engaged in a global depopulation effort, or he’s angling to inject microchips into our bloodstreams, or he’s teamed up with China, and the W.H.O., and the 5G industry to weaken and sicken Americans, or he’s cruelly hoarding patents and wants to soak us all. Should we be lucky enough to develop a vaccine, these people are absolutely going to refuse to get the shot. Since the success of an inoculation program is dependent upon widespread compliance, this presents an enormous problem, and it’s one that we’re not taking seriously enough. We’re underestimating the ferocity of the resistance that’s bound to come if the state mandates vaccination. This is going to undermine our containment efforts. It might undo them altogether.
The theories about Bill Gates are negative ones, and therefore impossible to dispel. Just as there’s no way for us to disprove the belief that Hillary Clinton is sacrificing babies to feed her adrenochrome addiction, we’ll never be able to say for sure that Gates’s intentions aren’t diabolical. He might be concerned about the welfare of the planet, or he might be an evil orchestrator bent on population control; we’re not inside Bill Gates’s psyche, so his motivations will always be opaque to us. It is natural to harbor suspicions about rich and powerful people, and wonder about how they accumulated that power, and whether it’s wise for humanity to devise systems that allow so much influence to come into the hands of so few.
But rather than dismiss the medicine because we don’t like the messenger, it’s worth remembering a few things about Bill Gates. Gates is not an immunologist, or a virologist, or a physician. It’s arguable whether he’s even a scientist. He’s associated with vaccination because of his foundation, which has been supplying shots to poor people all over the world for many years. Those shots did not come directly from Bill Gates. They came from the laboratories of infectious disease experts whose work Gates has facilitated. The coronavirus vaccine, if and when it arrives, won’t have been whipped up by Gates in a Wuhan clinic; he won’t be wringing his hands, cackling over the brew, and salt-and-peppering it with silicon tracking devices. He’d have no idea how to do that even if he wanted to. In order for him to accomplish the heinous things that he’s been accused of desiring, he’d have to corrupt the entire medical system, and turn doctors who’ve devoted their lives to stopping the spread of disease into idiotic stooges. Out of necessity, I’ve become acquainted with some of these doctors, and I feel their bewilderment at widespread American recalcitrance, and our inaction in the face of a lethal threat. They’re not dupes. They know what they’re up against. We ought to listen to them.
That’s not always easy. One of the major drawbacks of capitalism is that it wrests the podium from scientists and hands it to their financiers. I’m not particularly interested in what Bill Gates, or Elon Musk, or Mark Cuban, or any other wealthy figurehead has to say about the coronavirus. Yet we’ve built a communications system that amplifies rich people and other celebrities, rewards them for adopting dramatic language, and drowns out more rational and measured actors. This has placed us at a terrible disadvantage, and it has also distorted our perception of medicine and how it works. That millions of Americans see vaccines as an expression of Bill Gates’s desires — whether altruistic or pernicious — demonstrates how far gone we are, and how detached from reality we’ve become. Gates isn’t going to pipe down, because billionaires never do. It’s up to the rest of us to listen carefully, apply some common sense, and understand that our collective problem can only be solved through collective action. A skeptical nation must develop a little faith in science. Our survival depends upon it.